In Warner Classics’ Olivier Messiaen edition, the representation of the vocal genre is surprisingly modest. This should not be taken as Warner Classics’ fault. Messiaen wrote one opera, his three-act Saint François d’Assise, which is more an examination of eight aspects (regards may be the proper noun in French, as in Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus”) of Francis of Assisi. He worked on this piece between 1975 and 1983, and the gargantuan scale of the result has been known to test the patience of some of the most devoted Wagnerians.
Fortunately, the few remaining vocal works are all on a much shorter scale of duration. One of them, “La mort du nombre” (the death of numbers) has already been classified as chamber music, since it is scored for soprano, tenor, violin, and piano. However, one of his earliest compositions was the song cycle Poèmes pour Mi, whose poems were his own texts. (“Mi” was his nickname for his first wife, Claire Delbos.) As is the case with his piano music, this cycle serves up many of the component elements of what Messiaen would later call his “musical language.” (Ironically, the Messiaen-approved pianist for this recording was his second wife, Yvonne Loriod, accompanying soprano Maria Oràn.) Composed in 1936, this song cycle seems to have been written at about the same time as his only choral motet, “O sacrum convivium!” (O sacred banquet), scored for SATB choir. (Readers may recall that this is the Messiaen selection on the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge album of music for the Feast of Corpus Christi, which was discussed yesterday. Note, also, that the organ meditation on the “sacred banquet” was Messiaen’s earliest published work.)
In the period following the Second World War, Messiaen’s interests began to shift from poetry to language itself. The eighth song in his Harawi cycle, composed in 1945 for soprano and piano and, like the “Turangalîla-Symphonie,” based on the legend of Tristan and Iseult, is entitled “Syllables;” and it marks the breakdown of communication through words into the expressive articulation of individual phonemes. (In Poèmes pour Mi, he was already experimenting with the abstractions of vocalization.) By 1948 he was working with his own invented language in a set of five songs that he called “Rechants.” This was scored for a twelve-voice choir, each voice with its own part.
Why is this genre so sparse? One can only speculate. Looking back on the entire Warner Classics anthology, it is clear that Messiaen could be startlingly imaginative in each of the genres considered in this series of articles. Perhaps, where the voice was concerned, he felt that he had said all he had to say for concert settings and shifted his attention to his opera project. Meanwhile, his capacity for invention kept going at full strength in other genres, particularly as his works for orchestra grew more and more ambitious and striking.